John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Nationals may have won the World Series but the Braves were the best team in the NL East over 162 games last season, totaling 97 wins, and they could be better in 2020 considering:
They have the best core of age 25-and-under players in the division, as well as a Top Five farm system, and they've moved quickly this off-season to load up in the bullpen, signing Will Smith, the top reliever on the free agent market, and re-signing Chris Martin.
All of which sets an awfully high bar for the Mets next season if they're going to deliver on the win-now expectations that have defined Brodie Van Wagenen's actions as GM.
As if to drive that point home, Greg Maffei, the CEO of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, had this to say to CNBC on Friday:
"We're well set up with young talent. But in addition we just signed Will Smith, probably the best reliever in baseball. Yeah, we're going to spend some money, and we have relative freedom under the cap and in our payroll compared to most people, including the Mets."
Maffei singled out the team in Queens as a lighthearted jab at the CNBC reporter, having already kidded him about being a Mets fan, but the point was made: the Braves have significantly more room to spend without worrying about the luxury-tax threshold--"the cap" --than the Mets, allowing them to spend this winter in pursuit of a championship.
Of course, that might only mean replacing Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel, who could leave as free agents, but even in that case the Braves should emerge from this off-season as the division favorites in 2020, unless the Mets, Nationals, or Phillies have an especially bold winter.
With that in mind, here's a look at what the contenders in the NL East (the Marlins still don't qualify) are likely to do during the Hot Stove season, as well as what they could--or should--do to give themselves the best shot at winning big in 2020.
As suggested, they're the team to beat in the division next season, despite the Nationals' stunning October. For that matter, they could have advanced farther last post-season had they not limited rookie Mike Soroka, their best pitcher, to just one start--Game 3--against the Cardinals, perhaps because they were trying to limit his innings.
In any case, Soroka looks like a dominant starter, and the Braves have more highly-touted pitching emerging from their farm system, but they need another top-of-the-rotation starter to win a championship next season.
Will they get one? Their CEO seems to be indicating as much.
EXPECTED OFF-SEASON MOVES: I'd bet on them spending more on a pitcher than what it will take to bring back Donaldson. Madison Bumgarner seems like an ideal fit to headline a young rotation, and I could see them signing Mike Moustakas to play third, as heir apparent Austin Riley struggled badly last season after a hot start.
A BOLDER MOVE: Signing Smith was a smart start, giving them a deep, proven bullpen. If they're committed to winning a championship in 2020, they should re-sign Donaldson, who was a difference-maker for them last season.
Their feel-good championship makes up for all those October failures, so now the question is how much are they willing to pay in pursuit of another? The Nationals had enough offensive talent to allow Bryce Harper to walk a year ago, but losing free agents Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg would be far more damaging.
They've got a good young position-player core, with Juan Soto's stock soaring after his impressive post-season, and Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin will be back, but in addition to Rendon and Strasburg they could lose October hero Howie Kendrick and bullpen savior Daniel Hudson.
EXPECTED OFF-SEASON MOVES: I think they'll find a way to keep Strasburg, in part because all indications are that he wants to stay, and because he's a creature of comfort, might even take less money--over the objections of Scott Boras, no doubt--to remain in D.C.
Also, after all their bullpen problems, you have to think they'll re-sign Hudson, who emerged just in time for them as a closer.
A BOLDER MOVE: It's pretty simple: spend what it takes to keep Rendon. That offense won't be nearly the same without him as the righthanded partner to Soto's lefthanded bat.
So far there's no sign of Bold Brodie from a year ago, no doubt because of payroll limitations this off-season, and that's not a good sign if the Mets are serious about closing the gap on the Braves and Nationals.
Van Wagenen so far is talking like he's counting on bounce-back years from Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia as a solution to the Mets' problems, while indicating he might turn to Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman to fill out the starting rotation in place of Zack Wheeler.
And none of that sounds like a commitment to winning a championship. Of course, it's possible the GM is lying in the weeds, if you will, preparing to make some surprise moves. Mets' fans can only hope.
EXPECTED OFF-SEASON MOVES: I think it's realistic that they'll trade with the Pirates for Starling Marte, though that would further deplete a farm system that is practically barren at the top levels. And they'll almost certainly sign a couple of bargain-bin relievers to add bullpen depth, if not the quality they need.
A BOLDER MOVE: They already missed out on an obvious way to improve, deciding to stick with Wilson Ramos rather than trading him and signing Yasmani Grandal. I'm not going to suggest a big splash move like signing Rendon, just because it's seems so far-fetched, but with so little starting pitching close to being ready in their farm system, the Mets should still make a play to re-sign Zack Wheeler, especially with Marcus Stroman heading for free agency after this season.
Would they dare to again spend the "stupid money" their owner predicted and then delivered on to get Harper last winter? After all, the Phillies need to find ways to improve significantly beyond simply replacing Gabe Kapler with Joe Girardi as manager.
Mostly they need pitching, with Jake Arrieta in decline and their young starters other than Aaron Nola so far failing to live up to expectations.
EXPECTED OFF-SEASON MOVES: They do seem prepared to spend significantly again, and signing Didi Gregorius would be an upgrade at shortstop, assuming his down year was largely due to the effects of Tommy John surgery. I think they'll sign one of the second-tier starting pitchers on the market, whether it's Wheeler, Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu or even reuniting with Cole Hamels.
A BOLDER MOVE: With a lot of pieces in place, the Phillies could become instant championship contenders by going big to land Gerrit Cole and teaming him with Nola at the top of the rotation.